Matthew Higgs is an artist, curator, and writer. He is the director and chief curator of White Columns, New York City’s oldest, alternative not-for-profit art space. In 2012, Higgs curated the outstanding show, Everyday Abstract — Abstract Everyday at James Cohan Gallery. The following transcript is a discussion of the conception, planning, and organization of that show. We spoke at his White Columns office.
THE BELIEVER: What was the germ of this show?
MATTHEW HIGGS: It had really begun just as kind of me sort of observing the way that certain artists were working with found commonplace everyday quotidian materials, yet they were ending up with something that very closely resembled abstract art. So there was a kind of paradox where the materials in the work retained their everydayness, but somehow they were put in the service of something that seemed to be abstract. It seemed to me there’s an interesting paradox to me between the thingness of the object, which was retained, and—you know, this idea that they sort of become something else. It seemed to me to work against perhaps an earlier mid-twentieth century idea of modernism, especially abstract painting, which was the idea—coming from Clement Greenberg—that abstract paintings existed outside of the real world. That they were kind of a world unto themselves. They didn’t have any kind of external stimuli in them—they were sort of in denial of social, economic, psychological realities. It wasn’t the abstract in the sense of the sublime. Like, zen abtraction. It was something quite different. My feeling was that it’s connected to social realities. It’s connected to a shift in the economy. Moving toward—even things like recycling. The idea of discarded materials. The idea of scavenging materials. The idea of repurposing abandoned materials. There seems to be something in the work that connected it to a kind of dysfunctional idea of society.
I wasn’t saying this is a style or a manner of making work. What I was saying is it occurs often enough that it’s more than isolated incidents. It seems to me that this was a methodology that all kinds of people in different circumstances, artists of different ages, have all arrived at independently. And that was sort of the initial motivation.
BLVR: Is this different from say, the Arte Povera movement in Italy?
MH: Yeah Arte Povera, you know obviously it shares some sensibility in that Arte Povera in it’s classical formation is rooted in the everyday, and it was rooted in, you know—
BLVR: Garbage, sometimes.
MH: Yeah exactly. But it seems to me within Arte Povera there’s a kind of sort of, you know, poetry. That perhaps is less apparent in the work in this show. This work seems to be more ordinary. Perhaps more humble. And perhaps less demonstrative than Arte Povera was. I think, you know, a lot of Arte Povera works still pose toward the theatrical. Certainly when you’re in the space with a some of these works, they occupy a lot of space. They take on a lot of kind of very theatrical presence. And a lot of the work in this show does the opposite. It moves away from this idea of a physical presence to something that’s you know, marginal. It has a kind of marginal impact.
BLVR: So it’s not attempting to transcend its materials at all?
MH: Yeah, there’s a kind of honesty. And a strange kind of truthfulness to the materials. And the intended effect of the work is quite modest. And it seems counter to, you know, the idea that art has to make some kind of grand statement. That art has to occupy some kind of grand presence, or all those kind of gestures. This work seems to be working against those kind of ideas. They obtain their ordinariness.
BLVR: Do you think that’s more true right now, than say ten years ago?
MH: I think you can read it as a reaction. I’m not sure individual artists would agree with this, but I think you could read it as a reaction to you know, perhaps some of the excessive spectacle like artworks produced in the last decade. A number of critics have used the term you know, carnivalesque, relating to sort of like the Biennales and art fairs where people end up taking their cell phones for autographs, or the kind of thing that’s covered in glitter, and making neon signs, a gigantic sculpture based on a manga sculpture and so forth. It seems to me that kind of sort of excessiveness in art, this work I would suggest is a counter to that. It seems to me that the excessive carnivalesque art is connected to the blooming economy of the early to mid 2000s, when not only the art world was blooming, but everything was blooming. And then of course, that crashed, and it seems to me that this work is empathetic to what came, what followed - that idea of being more closely connected to, or emerging from existing social realities. It’s what I found most interesting about this work, that it’s uhm, that it’s connected to how people live their lives. Or how their lives are.
Andy Warhol, Oxidation Painting, 1978.
II. THE PREVAILING LOGIC
BLVR: But there are some Warhols in there—
MH: Exactly. The Warhol Oxidation Paintings from the 70s, where he and his assistants would urinate onto copper covered canvases. Also, there’s a work by David Hammons from the early 90s that was made with Kool-Aid. I wanted to put these historical positions into the show to indicate that this isn’t a potentially new phenomenon—
BLVR: It’s not a movement.
MH: Exactly. It’s a sort of sensibility that’s existed for a long time in art.
BLVR: Would you say that you don’t want things in the show to astonish people?
MH: You could find equivalents in music where the band’s not trying to overwhelm you. The band’s you know, not trying to stun you will skill. Early Sebadoh shows. I remember seeing in the early nineties. They seemed to be working against the prevailing logic of rock, which was they seemed to almost undermine their status as musicians, they were trying to do something different, which was perhaps more emotional, psychological, more down to earth, whatever it was. I think you could make that argument here—this work is working against this spectacular culture; it’s working against the culture of excess. It’s working against the need for art to be impressive. I think a good example would be like the work of the Philadelphia Wireman, who is an anonymous person who made these sculptures in Philadelphia in the seventies. The person wrapped found objects in wire, and several thousand of them were found in an alleyway in Philadelphia. It seems to me that’s a much more charged sculptural event than a forty foot tall cast of an anatomical toy by Damien Hirst.
There’s more going on in a four-inches-tall work by the Philadelphia Wireman than there is in something else. So I think the work just operates in a different way and is comfortable about how it operates. And it’s not trying to sell itself to you in any kind of conventional way. It seems very comfortable with it’s diminished material presence.
What it seems to me is that what I was trying to make with the show was a kind of argument, and it’s like an argument for this kind of practice, or this way of working. So that’s how I like to think about a show. It’s like a proposition. At the end of July when the show’s down, you know, it’ll, it’ll disperse. Hopefully there’s a legacy to when all this work was brought together.
BLVR: How would you describe the way the show is installed?
MH: The show is really kind of almost a sampler. I’m tired of going to shows where there’s twenty feet of white walls around every art object. And I wanted the works to be in relatively close proximity to each other so there was a literal and physical dynamic to the objects. Also, if you put one thing in an empty room, it’s bound to look interesting. If you put two things in an empty room, you’re bound to have a dialogue between those two objects, I think if you put thirty seven things in a relatively modest space, something else happens. Hopefully it’s like a kind of sort of visual cacophony. The best sense of that. Things are working at different speeds. Individual works have different rhythms, they’re all working simultaneously, but autonomously.
BLVR: I know you make artwork outside of your curation. Do you think of curation as a form of art?
MH: You know, I started at art school, and when I was at art school I made collaborative work with a friend of mine, Gavin Brown, who runs a gallery here—and this was in the mid-to-late eighties in the UK and I think even that was an attempt to kind of dissolve the kind of individual identity of being an artist. The simple way to do that was to work with someone else. When I started working on projects with artists in the early nineties. I started a sort of publishing project, and I felt, even though the work I was publishing wasn’t my work, the nature how we came to publish and distribute my works was very collaborative, and I felt that that was my practice. I don’t know if I would have defined it as an artistic practice, but it was my practice. I wasn’t strictly a publisher. I wasn’t strictly a distributer. I wasn’t a gallery, but my practice was collaborating with artists on projects. And I don’t think running a space is any different. It’s uh, more about negotiating things with other people. And that’s the pleasure for me - the process of negotiating contexts, a set of circumstances, negotiating with individual people. It’s those kind of conversations where all the pleasure is.
Ross Simonini is interviews editor for the Believer and the executive producer of The Organist on KCRW. His website is rosssimonini.com
Photography by Jason Mandella